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13 Times Representation Mattered In Books

We'll see who has the upper hand in the 'post-literate' era.

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This week on the BuzzFeed's Another Round podcast, we're remixing the best stories of books that got us through hard times and helped us understand ourselves.

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We've got some throwbacks to Roxane Gay's *very* free speech, Ta-Nehisi talmbout his love of rom-coms and some Real Talk™️ with some of our favorite writers and most hype book enthusiasts (you may recall some of these voices from the reading recommendations mini-ep a few weeks back).

1. First up, your future boss and founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks Marley Dias joins us with writer and book supporter extraordinaire Ashley C. Ford for a conversation about which books most influenced them growing up.

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When Marley's aunt got her a copy of Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming" for her 9th birthday, she wondered why she wasn't seeing it in school. “Why is nobody else telling me about this book? Why did my aunt have to go to on Amazon and look for a book about black girls instead of being able to go and find one herself?" Preach, lil Marley. And please remember the PodSquad when you're ruling the entire world.

2. Ashley discovered her ✨black girl magic✨ when Amazing Grace taught her how to fly.

Scholastic/Dial Books

"I wanted to be an actress from the time I was little until I went off to college.

This little black girl is told that she can’t play Peter Pan. Spoiler alert, not only does she get the role, she blows everyone away."

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3. Heben was into: (foreshadowing alert!) books about young ~inquisitive girls~.

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Heben says she was into everything from Harriet the Spy to all the Judy Blumes, but the book that influenced her the most was Matilda.

“It really captured for me [that] there are other girls out there too who are just stowing away in their books because the outside world is not that great… Also, I just wanted my secret powers to finally come in.”

4. Meanwhile, Tracy found her inner writer caught up in Charlotte's Web.

Harper Collins

“It was a really pretty world that somebody else created,” Tracy says. “I was just like, woah, anybody can do this...I think that’s the first time that I was like ‘I want to do this.’ I want to write a book one day that makes people feel the way this book has made me feel. It’s been on my list of favorite books since the second grade.”

5. National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson (aka Marley’s fave author, who was nominated again this year) found a vision for her own potential in Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

Harper Collins

She says she remembers "love, love LOVING that book and just rereading it and carrying it around until it was tattered because it was suddenly a whole family of my people. So I’ve definitely had different moments where I had an awakening and a point where I felt legitimizes, not only me as a human being, but as a writer."

But the representation problem is REAL, she says. "I didn’t see myself in so many of the books that we were reading in my classroom. Even the books that my mother got out of the library didn’t represent us or didn’t represent us positively. The books that were winning awards and getting into our classroom were oftentimes problematic."

6. Brit Bennett, who slayed all the words this year with her debut novel The Mothers, was basically done writing her own book before she saw her experiences in anyone else's work. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is the book that made her see herself.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

"I remember that was one of the first books that I read that followed a middle class black family that was having these struggles but it wasn't the sort of glorified struggle of that we're used to seeing often in narratives about black families. I just remember reading it and thinking that these characters were just regular black people having problems. It’s a contemporary novel and something that’s happening now, not this epic, big historic book that we often see for fiction with black characters."

7. Prolific reader, tweeter and director of the National Book Foundation Lisa Lucas says she grew up in a multicultural family and wished for more edgy black girls in her books growing up.

This is me still standing after the craziest week of ever.

“The first time that I really saw something—some glimmer— of who I was reflected back was when I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith. And it’s funny, right? Because she’s a woman who was raised across an ocean in another country who was writing about a totally different reality, but it sort of reflected back that you don’t have to look at race or at life in a traditional, boxed in way. You can write a story about people who live all kinds of wacky lives. And they can be brown. And they can be...you know...anything.”

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8. BuzzFeed's executive culture editor Saeed Jones says he had to look hard to find a book that represented him. “I grew up in the suburbs of North Texas and I’m gay; I was raised buddhist. So, you see yourself in shards.”

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But he says that when he finally found Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name by Audre Lorde, “it was the first time I was able to see in the nonfiction memoir form, a black queer artist, poet, lover, really making her way through the world,” and it inspired him to cultivate his own voice. “I used to go to the library and find books about gay and queer experiences, wherever I could in the ‘gay’ section—it was like 'homosexual studies' in the library, and I would pull them onto my lap and I would sit on the floor cross legged and then I would get a history book to hide it in case anyone came near me. That was my experience trying to find myself in books.

9. Hip-hop scholar and author Jeff Chang found his people in collection of comic strips called Wee Pals by Morrie Turner, the first black syndicated cartoonist in the US. “He created this multicultural Peanuts and he had this one [Asian-American] character named George.”

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“I grew up in Hawaii in this very multiracial society where kids of all these different backgrounds were always playing and getting along. So for me, at a real young age to discover these collections in the library of Morrie Turner’s cartoons and many years later I actually got to become his neighbor and we became really good friends! That was just everything to me.”

10. Glory Edim, the founder of the digital and IRL bookclub, Well Read Black Girl, says it was The Color Purple by Alice Walker that brought it on home for her.

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“There’s so many books where you don't see yourself,” she says. “I read a lot of Little Women and a lot of [The] Baby-Sitters Club. And then the moment I read The Color Purple I was like “We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to look beautiful, and I feel like there’s a lot of Celie and Shug in every black woman. We can be strong, and also be vulnerable... And let all our guards down and when I read that book I was just like ‘ ah! This is it. It doesn’t have to be this perfect package… we can just be ourselves.”

Glory says reading allows her “to feel more empathetic and have an understanding. And if i do have a friend who’s having an issue, I can understand it through narratives. That’s why it feels so important to have so many different stories...You just have a different appreciation for what people are going through and how you can address it and how you can be an ally in a way that is real, and not just on the page. You can take what you read in a book and apply it to your real life.”

11. On the flip side of representation, actual Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates has some thoughts about what is not his job to represent.

Ta-Nehisi Coates/Twitter / Via Twitter: @tanehisicoates

“It’s not my job to make people feel good about the world. No more than it’s Joan Didion’s job to feel food about the world. No more than it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s job to make people feel good about the world. I make literature. And the notion that art should be judged by whether it makes you feel good or not, whether or not it makes you feel good about tomorrow is absurd. And infantile.”

PS: TNC says “If you don’t read Toni Morrison, you don’t understand American literature.”

12. Which leads us to our omnipresent literary mother, Toni Morrison, whose vibrant, poignant characters awakened countless young black women to the depths of their identities.

Alfred A, Knopf

Young adult novelist Brandy Colbert says she first really saw herself when she read Sula for a women’s lit class In college. "I can't believe I hadn’t read anything by Toni Morrison by that point, but I was so glad to be introduced to it. Sula is just a gorgeous story and is still one of my favorite books. And it had a realistic portrayal of black women that I think is just wonderful. I love it, I can’t say enough great things about it. And then I went on to read everything by Toni Morrison"

13. Even the First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray says she had her come-to-Toni moment reading The Bluest Eye.

Cheers @BWA3! This award belongs to all those dedicated to erasing stigma around mental illness and addiction.

“The character, Pecola Breedlove is not a healthy person but she’s an 11-year-old girl who is being ridiculed by her classmates and so many others. And it was the first time that I read a book and there was a little girl who had some experiences like mine and it really moved me. And the fact that there aren’t very many other books like that in literature shows us that we still need more books to reflect the people and experiences of our nation.”

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Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton cover everything from race, gender and pop culture to squirrels, mangoes, and bad jokes, all in one boozy podcast.

Contact Another Round at julia.furlan+anotherround@buzzfeed.com.

Chiquita Paschal is an audio producer with BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Chiquita Paschal at chiquita.paschal@buzzfeed.com.

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